Approaching the international museum map?

A subjective overview of museums in Transylvania

MúzeumCafé 47.

Transylvania in the administrative sense has 300 museums. Their situation is influenced by political conflicts, as well as different ambitions and visions. Besides the museums in Sekler Land, which can be regarded as successful in terms of their community integration, there are institutions with up-to-date heritage protection in the inner region of Transylvania and the historic Saxon Land, which are compelled to handle different ethnic expectations, while new institutions interested in archiving and the contemporary registers of cultural production are trying to find their place in the international art market. This colourful pattern follows the tendencies of the contemporary museum scene from a distance, although with some ambition. The shortfall can partly be explained by the fact that there is no consistent discourse about the branding of the urban spaces and the region, and because the distant and recent past have not yet been integrated.

I use Steven Hoelscher’s categories to examine the subject and demonstrate the significance of a given aspect with a principal example. Hoelscher presents seven central categories: display; place (the interaction between the museum and the urban or regional space, the symbolic affect of the place); time (timing how a museum makes the display of an object current); politics (what interests, financial policies and identity models lie behind an exhibition); authenticity; popular appeal (quality, type and strategies of disseminating knowledge); development strategies.

Hoelscher’s categories also suggest some priorities. No wonder the first issue that has to be addressed concerns the fact that the performance of Transylvanian museums reflects contradictions. While state-owned museums in the county seats function in the most beautiful edifices of Transylvania, the display arrangement and the design of exhibitions lack a professional attitude. I am aware that this is a rather rough and unsophisticated judgement. Yet it is no surprise, since in their daily practice museum specialists fail to think of visual effects and incorporate visual designers’ expertise.

The example of Alba Iulia is instructive in terms of the relationship between location and urban space. The town’s present image has been formed by ethnic rivalry and a symbolic occupation of space: the Romanian National Assembly announced the union of Transylvania with the other two Romanian princedoms in the former Transylvanian princely seat in 1918. As a result an Orthodox centre was established in Alba Iulia alongside that of the Roman Catholic Church. This rivalry can also be indentified in the case of museums: the Batthyáneum with its fascinating collection of books (it holds 80 per cent of medieval codices in the territory of Romania) has been the subject of serious political conflict and is still in the ownership of the Romanian National Library. Two manifest institutions of Romanian cultural expansion were founded close to this collection, which was established at the end of the 18th century: the Museum of the Orthodox Archdiocese, built in 1921-22, and the Museum of National Union, which moved into the building of the historic museum founded in 1888, and changed the function of the former in 1929. These two building complexes are situated not far from the Alba Iulia Castle. This 18th century edifice was to signify the consolidation of Hapsburg rule in Transylvania. Following several years of restoration it opened to the public in 2009. The castle was renewed with a view to creating a tourist attraction, though one interpreted in a peculiar manner: staff dressed in imitation Habsburg uniforms and imperial court dressing provide information for tourists. The ritual of a castle visit incorporates the changing of the guard, which offers an imagined tradition. To identify the uniforms is difficult not only because of visitors’ lack of information about the history of costumes, but also because to imitate 18th century military uniforms using contemporary fabric is not a simple task. This three-dimensional treatment of history from the 18th century foundation of the library through the demand for the creation of a national centre, to Disneyland-like history characterises the heritage discourse of Alba Iulia, which is otherwise full of large tower blocks. However, Alba Iulia is undoubtedly the most extreme example. An ethnically undifferentiated museum infrastructure characterises towns in the Partium, the Banat and inner Transylvania.

The position of museums in Sekler towns is far more clear-cut and their communal integration is stronger. Thanks to the Miercurea Ciuc Early Music Festival, Mikó Castle, which houses the Ciuc Sekler Museum (see MúzeumCafé 17 – ed.), is the venue of an event attracting the largest number of visitors to the town. )

) The Haáz Rezső Museum in Odorheiu Secuiesc has presented up-to-date issues such as book culture, which is being redefined on the threshold of the digital era (2013) and an exhibition presenting the global and local history of coffee (2011). It is also worth noting that education activities in Sekler Land museums are much more advanced compared to other institutions in Transylvania.

With respect to the urban spaces and museum logic in Cluj-Napoca, another paradigm of the heritage idea cannot be ignored: the Paintbrush Factory in the town aims at rethinking contemporary visual culture in its presentation of contemporary arts. In 2009 the initiative included all the components that made the Paintbrush Factory a prominent cultural location on an international level: the concept, awareness of global urban trends, the founders’ network and the reputation of the represented artists. The building in Socialist Realist style was indeed a paintbrush factory earlier. The location which was known as a painters’ school in Cluj-Napoca can actually connect with the visual symbol of the paintbrush, which is discreetly represented in its logo. The factory incorporates organisations and institutions of four different types: galleries, artists’ and designers’ studios, cultural organisations and lecture halls.

It may not seem a particularly pessimistic prediction to say that Transylvanian museums are not going to join up with the visual trends of the international museum scene in the forthcoming decades. However, contemporary fine art can be the field whose archiving and communication besides the divergent localities can work in relation to the global mainstream. The reason is mainly because it does not carry the burden of historic traumas which have not been talked about and resolved, and have not produced consensus.

The community integration of the Cluj-Napoca Museum of Fine Arts can be hardly called a success story. It fulfils its mission as a sort of background institution of the University of Fine Arts in the town and its visitors tend to comprise exclusive circles. Nevertheless, the museum’s initiatives include the radical reinterpretation of the up-to-dateness of the museum and its exhibitions. The initiative under the name Parti-pris is an example of how Transylvanian museums are able to bring their collections up-to-date. It is not an entirely positive example since the museum PR does not function satisfactorily. It is not able to address even that part of the population interested in the arts. The series intended to include the contemporary art world of Cluj in the professional discussion about the museum’s collection, and provide an opportunity to rethink its future. The exhibitions did not attract too many visitors, despite using the frequent strategy in visual culture of employing a star curator.

The issues of museum policy do not represent a simple problem. As mentioned above, it is very difficult to create order in view of the varied histories of foundations, mixed intentions and current public policies. And perhaps it is not always reasonable: more can be lost with proclaiming the aim of clarification than accepting the existing context and planning accordingly. Yet there is a very painful example of how a museum can become a tool of propaganda. In Alburnus Maior the Roșia Montană Gold Corporation with an 80 per cent Canadian investor in the background revamped the local mining museum while ‘masking’ the destructive extraction of gold and its catastrophic effect on the environment. When I visited the museum after the opening a museum employee – one of the few who has a job in a region with high unemployment – proudly told me that the investment exceeded 10,000 euros. On hearing this symbolic sum, visitors are obviously not surprised at the small professional achievement on seeing the rooms equipped with plastic windows and doors, cabinets made of cheap materials and the small number of exhibited objects. Nor can visitors really appreciate the layers of knowledge displayed: the excavated finds from ancient Roman times, tools connected with mining, miners’ clothing and a few articles of use reflect the fact that no one has properly thought over the display logic of the location’s past, determined the focuses and ensured that an Alburnus Maior discourse could be formed that addresses the gravity of the problems.

Determining the focuses is often a comprehensive task, despite the fact that there is a consensus in this respect. For example, it would be worth making the relics of the past of mining in Transylvania emphatic from the aspect of Romania’s tourism branding, which is in the process of being formed. Indeed, this issue affects mainly Turda and Praid as centres of salt mining. The former’s salt mine handles significant international turnover, the latter is rather an attraction for tourism in Sekler Land. Turda could be another example of what an important task reaching a consensus of historic discourse can be. The local history museum of Turda, which is near Cluj-Napoca, has been in the building called The House of Princes since 1943. It is loosely but visibly connected to the salt mine, the main attraction of the town, which was the seat of the medieval Transylvanian salt chamber. From the aspect of Hungarian culture, the painting The National Assembly at Torda by Aladár Kőrösfői-Kriesch is highly valuable. It depicts Ferenc Dávid at the moment considered as the proclamation of the freedom of religious belief and the birth of Unitarianism. The town and the Aranyos seat regarded the initiative about religious tolerance, the first such initiative in Europe, as so significant that Kőrösfői-Kriesch was commissioned to paint a scene representing this moment for the Millenary Exhibition in 1896. Today it is a central work of the exhibition in Turda.

The issue of museum policy leads us to the question of the veracity of exhibitions. In the following case the example is an event related to the folk dance and folk art movement of the 1970s. On the initiative of the children’s magazine Jóbarát (Good Friend), dolls dressed in regional Transylvanian costumes were submitted in 1970-71. A jury comprising members of the editorial staff and costume specialists regarded 140 of the 250 costumes as satisfactory. The exhibition of dolls was displayed in several Sekler towns, other dolls were added, then the awards ceremony and the final exhibition were held in Cluj-Napoca. Later the whole collection became part of today’s Sekler National Museum in Sfântu Gheorghe and was exhibited in a branch museum, the Incze László Museum of Guild History in Târgu Secuiesc. Today the collection includes 352 dolls of which 247 are on display. Folk costumes are spectacular and exciting, representing an attraction for visitors who have no specifically professional interest. At the same time, the collection has the advantage that it can diagnose the relationship of a historical era to folk culture. It makes visible the aesthetic aspiration of a historic era that deprived the population of material goods, as well as the undercurrent attitudes in taste which were expressed in opposition to the political culture of the era. At the same time, it can also illustrate the existence of a ‘DIY’ culture. Yet the exhibition does not make these issues identifiable, although in front of the huge, crowded cabinet of the dolls many questions can be justifiably raised.

I would like to present an example concerning the issue of disseminating knowledge, which takes us to the border of Transylvania in a historical sense. The castle of Bran has entered international popular culture as Dracula’s Castle due to the success of Bram Stoker’s novel, the films it inspired and the huge impact of the vampire myth. Dracula’s story is both the gravest communication error and the largest success story in forming the image of Transylvania, since it generates a significant part of tourism to Romania. That is the reason why key importance is attached to the fact of what context and a carrier of what knowledge the place is presented as. I do not intend to turn the article into recommending a route, but since it is written with the intention of critical evaluation I must emphasise that the museum space is surprisingly professional and makes a venerable attempt to clarify the relationship between the Dracula phenomenon and the castle. It chooses two ways to do that. On the one hand, it goes deep into the story of the count’s myth, as well as the relationship between the castle and the overlying Hollywood image. It does not play on the myth but tries to clarify it. The contents on the castle’s webpage and the historical overview suggest what layers the Bran myth contains. This path could not be successfully pursued without replacing the myth with some other content, represented as the residence of the Romanian royal family. Dracula is replaced by two ladies, Queen Maria, the Romanian queen famed across Europe for her beauty, nobility and demeanour, and Princess Ileana, who transformed the use of the castle primarily according to the rules of protocol of the British royal family. The queen’s imposing library, bedroom, reception room and objects of everyday use can be seen instead of the vampire count’s fearful and non-existing world of objects. Civilisation instead of barbarian Transylvania. The figure of Queen Maria anyway represents a strong currency, since as a descendent of the British royal dynasty and the Romanov family the queen’s Transylvanian story enters the international imagination.

Finally, there is the issue of tendencies. I consider two phenomena within it. The first is the emergence of blockbuster exhibitions in Transylvania and the second is the digital self-representation of museums. The first is relatively new, and the second is being fashioned.

Several blockbuster exhibitions based on crowd-pulling names have been staged over the past two years in Transylvania. In summer 2014 Salvador Dalí’s illustrations of the Divina Commedia were exhibited in the Brukenthal Museum. In autumn 2014 Dalí’s Dreams of Pantagruel were on display in the Fine Arts Museum of Cluj-Napoca. We cannot fail to notice that this exhibition was possibly a response to the exhibition of Rembrandt’s prints open throughout the summer at the Museum of Ethnography, which attracted record crowds compared to usual visitor numbers in Transylvania. At present the exhibition Albrecht Dürer – Master of Renaissance Prints can be seen. It must be emphasised that ticket prices are far higher than usual for Transylvanian museums, yet they are far lower than ticket prices for exhibitions in western Europe. However, the design of these exhibitions has not changed at all. The information publications are uninteresting, lacking typographic and graphic design.

Finally, with respect to online communication a smart phone app must be highlighted. It was introduced in English and Romanian in 2013 with the support of the Office for Heritage Protection. It enables users to search by museum name, town and county via Android and iPhone, as well as GPS, and it lists museums near the user’s location. The design of the App emphasises the significance of ethnographic heritage. Its logo includes a wooden church in a circle recalling a plate on homespun fabric. It does not entirely correspond to the principles of visual communication, yet it avoids quite a few mistakes which can be seen in the logos of Transylvanian museums due to the lack of a conscious developmental process. With respect to individual museum websites, they can also be searched in the database. In many cases these webpages appear under the menu of the Heritage Protection Office’s website, while the more significant county museums have their own websites. However, the use of social media hardly demonstrates a conscious use of information – at least for the time being. This is not surprising, since museums lack communication experts who are thoroughly familiar with users’ approaches to such media. Facebook is most often employed for promoting events and presenting picture galleries. The webpages of the Ciuc Sekler Museum, the Sekler National Museum, the Haáz Rezső Museum, the Brukenthal Museum, the Museum of Ethnography in Cluj-Napoca and the Arad Museum Centre can be mentioned as positive examples.

What I do miss in this museum culture is the realisation that a museum’s most important purpose is to provide quality content, although managing its collection is also undoubtedly an essential task. As long as there isn’t a single exhibition or museum in Transylvania which is able to captivate a visitor’s attention for at least three hours while they find only tiny errors, there is still much to do. To achieve a consensus about handling the distant and recent past and representing it in museums is urgent, yet results in the near future can hardly be envisioned. The aim is far from being realised for the time being.